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Curtis Sittenfeld: As a journalist, you’ve written about a wide range of topics, including pop culture and politics, so I’m wondering why parenthood is the subject that elicited a book from you.
Jennifer Senior: You’re right, and if this were a parenting book, it wouldn’t even occupy the same hemisphere as the other pieces I’ve done. (Confession: I have purchased exactly one parenting book in my lifetime.) But I consider this a social science book, and I’ve done plenty of social science stories over the years: About the psychological effects of high school on our adult years; about loneliness and cities; about burnout; about our obsession with happiness. Also, I think of this book as a series of mini-ethnographies—portraits of how American families live now—and that comes pretty naturally, having been an anthro major. Even when I wrote about the Senate, which used to be often, I treated it as an other-planetary universe with its own alien customs.
CS: This book has its origins in a much-buzzed-about New York magazine cover story. In that article but not in the book, you discussed your own experiences as a parent. Why didn’t you include yourself in the book? Can you share a bit about your family?
JS: So funny: I mentioned my own experience in just two paragraphs of that magazine story, but because they were the first two paragraphs, people misremember it as part-memoir. The only reason I did so – both early in the magazine story and in this book — was to alert readers that I, too, was a parent. But the specifics of my own story seem irrelevant, and too idiosyncratic from which to generalize. It’s far better to look at the full spectrum of social science research about families, and to talk to a wide variety of parents.
For the record, though: My husband and I have one six-year-old son, and my husband has two grown kids from a previous marriage. I entered their lives when they were adolescents, which made me realize how complicated that period was for parents.
CS: One of the book’s fascinating tidbits is the implication that parents have friction with teens in some sense because the parents are jealous.
JS: Jealousy is only a small part of it. (Though I’m amazed by Laurence Steinberg’s finding that fathers become depressed when their teenage sons start to date.) What generally seems to happen is that adolescents make their parents take stock of every life choice they’ve ever made—their marriages and careers especially. Teenagers can be so critical and rejecting that they expose all the holes in their parents’ lives: Now that my kid’s dispensed with me, all I have is my marriage and my job, and I’m not thrilled with either.
CS:In your marriage chapter, you suggest at one point that many moms would be better off being more like dads. Can you explain what you mean?
JS:I only mean this in the sense that fathers seem less frantically perfectionist about their parenting than mothers do, probably because they aren’t burdened by the same unattainable cultural ideals (real or fictional—Tiger Mom or June Cleaver.) It’s a crude generalization, yes, and of course there are exceptions. But both conversations and hard data make it clear that fathers feel much less pressure to play with their children during every free moment, and they’re much quicker to claim their right to free time. If mothers did the same, one wonders what would happen—Glad you’re back from that bike ride, now I’m going to the gym! It’s possible domestic divisions of labor would shift a little in their favor.
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: Reading Jennifer Senior’s lively and weirdly comforting All Joy and No Fun was like attending the self-help group for beleaguered parents that I never knew I needed. (“Hi, my name is Neal, and I’m a parent-aholic…”) Far afield from the headline-grabbing shockers in books like Tiger Mom, this is a thoughtful and deeply researched look at the reality of modern day parenthood: we love our kids, and they make us crazy, and it’s all our fault. The book grew from Senior’s eye-raising New York magazine piece, in which she explored the dark side of parenting--the depression, the marital woes, the loss of self-worth. Sure, raising kids is, ultimately, deeply rewarding. But on a day to day basis? Sometimes a bummer. Parenthood has changed a lot since World War II, as more women entered the workforce, dads became more engaged in child rearing, and an “asymmetrical” parent-child relationship evolved. We’re doing more for our kids, but they’re doing less for us. “Children went from being our employees to our bosses,” Senior writes. If you want to be a better parent--or, maybe more importantly, to feel better about the parent you’ve become--you need this book. And, probably, a nap. --Neal Thompson
It's probably the best book I've read in 2015. I found immediate application to my own life. My favorite part was the bit about neuroscience and the development of pre-frontal... Read morePublished 29 days ago by Jami
Great book for parents of this modern generation. Well-researched and compelling analysis.Published 1 month ago by fishs
This book is very hard to read, jumps back and forth a lot. Don't really agree with many of the author's premises, but enjoyed her interview on NPR and like to be open to other... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Susan L.
This book is practically my parenting bible. It reassures me over and over that it is okay to be honest about how I feel as a parent sometimes.Published 1 month ago by Samantha Lincoln
A fun read for a parent of three kids under 12. Well written with respectable research rather than sensational claims or advice.Published 2 months ago by Thomas Norman
Let me start by saying that I was not looking for a parenting guide when I picked this. I was intrigued by the philosophical differences of raising kids of present versus how I was... Read morePublished 2 months ago by himanshu, the story teller
Great insights into the effects of parenting on the big people.Published 2 months ago by Joseph D. Hanic